Dir: Arnaud des Pallières. France-Germany. 2013. 121mins

Michael Kohlhaas

Mads Mikkelsen is at his most saturnine as a Robin Hood-like rebel of the sixteenth century in Arnaud des Pallières’s Michael Kohlhaas, a film perhaps best described as a historical Western. Based on the early nineteenth-century novella by German romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist, the story has been radically stripped down and transplanted fairly painlessly to France. Striking photography and sombre atmospherics contribute a distinctive dark feel, but overall the film is dragging its weight long before its laconically tragic payoff. Commercial prospects look modest, despite Mikkelsen’s ever-ascendant box-office appeal.

The film works best when it’s about tersely-executed action, as in the effective sequence in which Kohlhaas and his men launch a guerrilla attack on the Baron’s castle.

The film is a striking departure for hitherto-marginal French director des Pallières, best known for idiosyncratic documentaries and a bizarre, modernist John Cheever adaptation, Parc. The sober, intense Michael Kohlhaas is closer in feel to the 1970s historical films of Werner Herzog, or to Roman Polanski’s Macbeth - with a dash of Sergio Leone in the equestrian action. And the film’s most idiosyncratic touch is a dark desolate atmosphere that registers as distinctly mediaeval, rather than sixteenth-century.

The story - notably filmed in 1969 by Volker Schlöndorff, with David Warner in the lead - is about a horse trader (Mikkelsen) who hands over two of his horses as security to a corrupt baron (Swann Arlaud) who illegally insists on charging a toll for passage over his land. Trying to retrieve the horses later, Kohlhaas discover that not only have they been brutally mistreated but so has his groom(David Bennent).

When his wife Judith (Chuillot) travels to plead with the Princess of Angoulême (Roxane Duran) on his behalf, she returns bloodied - for reasons never quite explained - and soon dies. In search of justice, this homesteader and family man sells his land, raises an army and becomes a feared and respected brigand - or to give the film its full political resonance, a Che Guevara in chainmail.

The film works best when it’s about tersely-executed action, as in the effective sequence in which Kohlhaas and his men launch a guerrilla attack on the Baron’s castle. It’s not so good when it gets wordy, and despite a terrific downbeat performance from Denis Lavant as a theologian - in effect, an unnamed Martin Luther - the scene in which he debates human and divine justice with Kohlhaas is somewhat leaden.

Part of the problem lies with des Pallières failing to make interesting use of Mikkelsen, who never does much more than use his steely gaze to play Kohlhaas as a Clint Eastwood avant la lettre. Other support players add life, and generally look every inch the period part - notably Duran, Bruno Ganz and Mélusine Mayance as Kohlhaas’s young daughter. Martin Wheeler contributes a terrific mediaeval-themed score heavy with drones and drums, and Jean-Pierre Duret’s sound design is one of the film’s aces. But generally, the film comes across as solemn rather than stately, and laden with so much gravitas that it never really gets off the ground.  

Production companies: Les Films d’Ici, Looks Filmproduktionen, Hérodiade, K’ien Productions, Rhône-Alpes Cinéma, Arte France Cinéma, ZDF/ARTE

International sales: Les Films du Losange, www.filmsdulosange.fr

Producers: Martina Haubrich, Gunnar Dedio

Executive producer: Serge Lalou

Screenplay: Arnaud des Pallières, Christelle Berthevas

Cinematography: Jeanne Lapoirie

Editors: Sandie Bompar, Arnaud des Pallières

Production designer: Yan Arlaud

Music: Martin Wheeler, Les Witches

Main cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Mélusine Mayance, Delphine Chuillot, David Kross, Bruno Ganz, Denis Lavant